Bernice Steinbaum — sporting giant, playfully baroque Prada eyeglasses and Chinese-inspired couture — is not her usual wisecracking self this afternoon. In a few days, she’ll shut down her two-story gallery, wedged between Wynwood and its chugging art scene and the increasingly tonyDesign District, now with Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Bulgari and Hermés on the way.
“I’m old, baby. I’m 70. I’ve been having lots of second thoughts about closing. But it’s time to recreate myself. And you only live once. And I suspect if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it,’’ she says about her decision to retire from full-time art dealing.
The still young gallery scene in Wynwood has had its casualties. For all of the buzz about the neighborhood’s rebirth as an art hub, there is no denying Miami still has a way to go before it catches up with deeper, more established art markets. The 10-year-old Art Basel Miami Beach, the most important contemporary art fair in the country, has done plenty to bolster the city’s cultural evolution. But sustaining year-round enthusiasm for art buying has been a struggle for both serious galleries and the upstarts. And recently, a few local artists, among them rising star Jen Stark, and the internationally-successful Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III of the collaborative FriendsWithYou, decided to bail for the more mature, lucrative art capital of Los Angeles.
But Steinbaum says her gallery has remained prosperous and that her decision to sell the property, which she bought in 1998 for $290,000 according to property records (assessed value in 2011 was nearly $1 million,) had nothing to do with the ups and downs of Miami’s art scene.
Two years ago, she lost her husband Harold, a retired physician. And for Steinbaum, that changed everything.
“Our marriage was 49 years in duration. I’m still reaching out to his pillow,” she says. “I had a wonderful life with him. In my naiveté, I thought this would go on forever. How silly. When someone so close to you dies, you are reminded of your own mortality. I want to spend more time with my grandchildren. I want to go to the mall. I want to watch Days of Our Lives – is that what that soap opera is called?”
In 2000, when Steinbaum opened her gallery on the corner of 36th Street and North Miami Avenue after a successful 23-year run in Manhattan, there wasn’t much but dust flying off a neighboring 56-acre rail yard that no one imagined would one day sprout into the happening Midtown Miami. The Design District was a desolate if historic collection of low-slung buildings, some housing furniture and fixture showrooms, others waiting out the tumbleweeds. Wynwood, now home to more than 60 galleries and private collection spaces plus an ever-expanding compilation of murals by some of the world’s most important graffiti artists, was nothing but a rough patch of the city known for its early 1990s race riots.
But the New York-born Steinbaum, who moved to Miami to live near her three children who had landed careers here, saw only possibility.
“When I bought the building it was crack-infested,’’ she says. “There were no other galleries here yet. And while I understood that a gallery has to be in an area where other galleries exist, you have to be able to do more than sell. You have to have exchanges with artists. And there were already artists who had studios nearby. I was guaranteed they would come. Artists have an insatiable curiosity. ‘’